Sunday, October 24, 2010

The white pelicans are back

It is that time of year again that makes me nostalgic for winter months in the Everglades. It means preparing for our camping season, enjoying the cooler temperatures and witnessing the return of one of the most beautiful birds in south Florida. Groups of American white pelicans have already been spotted in the gulf islands of the Ten Thousand Islands. If I lived on Chokoloskee Island, I would be able to capture the amazing migration flights of thousands of these birds as I could look up into the sky frequently and it would only be a matter of short time before I see them. Everything about the American white Pelican is spectacular, not the least of which is the 8-ft wing span! I once thought the brown pelican was amazingly large, until I first saw one standing next to a white pelican.

Besides the obvious differences body size and feather colors, there are other differences between the white and brown pelicans. If you are around them enough to observe their behaviors in the water, you will quickly notice that they also differ in how they catch fish. Brown pelicans typically dive for fish; sometimes alone, sometimes in the presence of other pelicans. White pelicans, on the other hand, catch fish while swimming in groups. They don't dive into the water, rather they dip their pouch to catch schools of bait fish. Another notable difference is that white pelicans rest on ground, such as mud flats (near Flamingo in Florida Bay), oyster shell beds (Chokoloskee Bay), or beachy islands (such as Plover or Pavilion keys in the Ten Thousand Islands). You will not see them resting in trees like the brown pelicans normally do. Nor will you see them taking up a piling post near a marina where you often watch brown pelicans hanging with the gulls and eagerly awaiting the remains of a fisherman's catch. The white pelicans are more elusive and rarely seen alone.

And yet another difference between the white and brown is that the whites do not nest in southern Florida. Rather, they make a long migration from northern United States and Canada around October and November each year. Late in winter, you'll begin to notice large bumps on their beaks, an indication that they are preparing for breeding season which begins with a migration back north sometime around March.

On two occasions, I have seen white pelicans here in the summer, once on Chokoloskee Bay and once on Biscayne Bay. The two things that struck me most were that it was summer and the bird was alone. I reckon that the bird on Chokoloskee Bay was old and could not make the migration back. There it stood among active roseate spoonbills all around it. It appeared beaten with old age and simply worn down. The other bird on Biscayne Bay had some grayish coloring on its feathers and I suspect this was a young one that made a migration south with its parents and did not go back north in spring since it was not yet ready for breeding.

I think the most amazing scene I have witnessed in the Everglades was in January of 2008 when paddling to Pearl Bay for an easy overnight trip. The plan was to spend a good portion of the time exploring the area and look for hidden bays. While paddling to the chickee, I watched some birds flying high, swirling around with the thermals, much like vultures do. Woodstorks also appear this way. I soon recognized them as white pelicans. As I continued paddling, I continued seeing more birds. They appeared to be coming out of a back area, arising over the mangrove canopy. Once I arrived in Pearl Bay, I had already watched several hundred fly overhead. As I set up camp and went back out on the water, their flights continued for the entire afternoon. Where were they coming from I wondered?

I learned that they feed in the hidden back bays during the day and fly out in the afternoon, which is what I was witnessing. The next morning, I headed into one of those back bays before sunrise, sat in the boat and waited as the sun began to peak over the horizon. Before long, I could hear their powerful wings and then they appeared. By the hundreds, the large birds were soon flying directly over me, almost within reach! They were coming back to feed again. Seems that the fish get caught in these back bays in the winter, and that's food for these birds.
The white pelicans are back now and soon I will be out there with them. Just look up and you can see their magnificence . Another Everglades precious gem.

No comments:

Post a Comment